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"He's pretty doggone good," head coach Roy Williams said after his team improved to 11-0 on the road this season. "When we get the basketball to him, he's able to make plays… He gives you the same thing every night, and that's the best that he can give you."
When the junior forward wasn't knocking down his newly-effective outside jump shot, he was driving around his defenders and scoring points, either with field goals or free throws, or sometimes with both. The National Player of the Year candidate connected on 11-of-19 shots from the floor and 10-of-13 from the charity stripe.
The 213th meeting between the two neighbors began with an eerie resemblance to the Wolfpack's 83-79 upset at the RBC Center last season. Head coach Sidney Lowe's squad dictated a slower half court pace to their rivals, and drilled six of their first 11 shots. His offensive triumvirate of Courtney Fells (10 points), Gavin Grant (17) and J.J. Hickson (13) combined for 40 of the Pack's 70 points, including 16 of their first 18.
It took a thunderous alley oop by Fells – courtesy of Grant – that gave N.C. State a 31-25 lead to awaken the late-arriving RBC Center crowd with just under five minutes to go before halftime. But the Tar Heels held their opponents scoreless for the rest of the half, while scoring nine of their own to open up a 34-31 lead at the break.
"I thought we were really lucky in the first half to stay in contact with N.C. State and make a nice run in the end," Williams said. "We put together some solid minutes towards the end of the half that really did a lot for us."
His All-American echoed those sentiments, pointing toward UNC's defensive effort in the closing minutes.
"That was really important for us," Hansbrough said. "I think things were going well for them in the first half, and then towards the end of it, we got some stops which lead to our offense and it just carried over."
North Carolina added another bucket to start the second 20 minutes, and that 11-0 run spurred the 31-7 eruption to jump out to a 56-38 working margin and effectively kill the Wolfpack's chances. UNC scored on 11 of their first 12 possessions of the second half.
The Tar Heels were only able to score six points off 10 N.C. State turnovers in the first half, but increased defensive pressure after the break created an additional 15 points off eight turnovers. Lowe's squad shot 46.4 percent in the second half, and 49.0 percent for the game on 25-of-51 shooting, while North Carolina connected on 53.1 percent (34-of-64) of their attempts.
The Wolfpack faithful filed out of the building with six minutes left in regulation after Marcus Ginyard (drove down the middle of the N.C. State defense for an uncontested slam dunk. UNC increased the lead to 82-62 with 3:20 remaining before N.C. State (15-11, 4-8) scored eight of the contest's final 10 points.
N.C. State talked in the days before this game about not allowing Hansbrough to get the ball where he wanted it in the post, but those efforts proved fruitless on Wednesday night.
"It's one thing to say it, [but] it's another thing to do it," Lowe said. "You've got to go out and execute it, and understand that a guy like that, he's not just going to lay down and allow you to take him out of the game or not allow him to get the ball. He's going to fight and fight and fight and try to get it, and he did that. He was the best player on the floor today, and he's been playing that way for awhile."
Wayne Ellington contributed 21 points and rebounds, while Quentin Thomas continued to blossom in his starter's role, adding 10 points and seven assists against just two turnovers. Marcus Ginyard also scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds, but Deon Thompson was limited to two points in only 13 minutes of action due to lingering knee and back concerns.